Tudor Place, Georgetown's Washington Family Connection

Conservator cleaning wax figure from late 18 c. wax and shell tableau.
Conservator cleaning wax figure from late 18 c. wax and shell tableau.

It is the nooks and crannies. The sleuthing, the surprise at the bottom of a box, learning about the hands that touched the bowl, dusted the lamp, paid the bill. The ghosts at Tudor Place have plenty of stories to tell. Like every beloved old house, Tudor Place still retains the imprint of its people, the family who built it and lived in it for six generations.

At Tudor Place, the past is not only present, it vibrates. In the bottom of an old box, Tudor Place staff found, under layers of old papers, a big piece of wallpaper. The piece is, according to Tudor Place’s executive director Leslie Buhler, probably one of the largest samples of late 18th-century wallpaper in existence. It is finds like this that make an old house come alive — the tastes and foibles of the very real people who once inhabited it. “Because the house is so intimate,” Buhler says, “people really connect with it.”

But even in a town where only the very latest polling data is news, people still care about what came before the rattle of the Metro bus and the latest scandal. Leslie Buhler looks out her window at the Tudor Place gardens below. “We did a paint analysis of the front door, and it turns out it was verdigris. The house itself was a golden color. I think about riding on a horse down here from R Street . . . it would’ve really made a wow!”

It still makes a wow. Think of seeing it through the eyes of a first grader who’s never before left her neighborhood. The house’s size, the tall old trees, the history; the place is fantastic. One of Tudor Place’s most successful programs brings about 3,000 school kids a year from all over Washington to visit. They can try on colonial costumes and learn about the past. Some classes do performances and recitals out on its South Lawn at Q and 31st Streets.

Education is one of Tudor Place’s most important tasks, Buhler says. To bring people in, the old house offers everything from Girl Scout programs to birthday parties to lectures and crafts classes for adults. Once people come inside the front gate, the sense of another era is inescapable. And, as Buhler says, “because we’re in the nation’s capital, many people here and who visit are interested in history.”

Preservation, of the house and its grounds, of the objects and artifacts, is Tudor Place’s other major goal. There are more than 15,000 objects in Tudor Place’s collection, and all of them tell a story. Two years ago, Tudor Place threw a party to welcome home an old friend: a chest-on-chest that George Washington kept in his bedroom. In 1816, it moved to Tudor Place, and, after some wanderings, in 2010 it came home again. After repair work, it now lives in the upstairs hallway. Preserving those old vases, spoons and books, and their histories, is expensive. Even the old trees need expert attention. Tudor Place spends between $25,000 and $30,000 each year maintaining its trees.

Even the ground underneath those trees is worthy of preservation. Tudor Place’s old outbuildings lie underground, waiting to be uncovered. The remains of a smokehouse are on the grounds, and the remnants of a dairy are just north of the property. Intriguingly enough, Tudor Place’s archeologists have found no trace of a freestanding kitchen building.

“The hardest challenge is grabbing peoples’ attention and helping them understand why Tudor Place is important, and why they should help fund it,” Buhler says. Tudor Place’s annual budget is more than one million dollars. Buhler says it ought to be about $1.5 million annually to run smoothly and provide enough for upkeep and conservation. But, like almost all art institutions these days, Tudor Place scrambles for every dollar.

The staff must also convince potential donors and even potential visitors that it is a worthy place for attention even if George Washington didn’t sleep there. He didn’t — the house was built in 1816 by Martha Washington’s granddaughter and her husband. But the lives they and their children led, the people they knew, the things they ate, are of great interest even if no president ever darkened the sheets.

Tudor Place, 1644 31st St., N.W. — 202-965-0400 — TudorPlace.org

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Mon, 22 Sep 2014 16:18:11 -0400

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